Fifty years of twin studies

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

The most interesting aspect of these results is that for many traits there is no detectable non-additivity. That is, gene-gene interactions seem to be insignificant, and a simple linear genetic architecture is consistent with the results.

Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies
Nature Genetics (2015) doi:10.1038/ng.3285

Despite a century of research on complex traits in humans, the relative importance and specific nature of the influences of genes and environment on human traits remain controversial. We report a meta-analysis of twin correlations and reported variance components for 17,804 traits from 2,748 publications including 14,558,903 partly dependent twin pairs, virtually all published twin studies of complex traits. Estimates of heritability cluster strongly within functional domains, and across all traits the reported heritability is 49%. For a majority (69%) of traits, the observed twin correlations are consistent with a simple and parsimonious model where twin resemblance is solely due to additive genetic variation. The data are inconsistent with substantial influences from shared environment or non-additive genetic variation. This study provides the most comprehensive analysis of the causes of individual differences in human traits thus far and will guide future gene-mapping efforts.

See also Additivity and complex traits in mice:

You may have noticed that I am gradually collecting copious evidence for (approximate) additivity. Far too many scientists and quasi-scientists are infected by the epistasis or epigenetics meme, which is appealing to those who “revel in complexity” and would like to believe that biology is too complex to succumb to equations. (“How can it be? But what about the marvelous incomprehensible beautiful sacred complexity of Nature? But But But …”)

I sometimes explain things this way:

There is a deep evolutionary reason behind additivity: nonlinear mechanisms are fragile and often “break” due to DNA recombination in sexual reproduction. Effects which are only controlled by a single locus are more robustly passed on to offspring. …

Many people confuse the following statements:

“The brain is complex and nonlinear and many genes interact in its construction and operation.”

Differences in brain performance between two individuals of the same species must be due to nonlinear (non-additive) effects of genes.”

The first statement is true, but the second does not appear to be true across a range of species and quantitative traits.

On the genetic architecture of intelligence and other quantitative traits (p.16):

… The preceding discussion is not intended to convey an overly simplistic view of genetics or systems biology. Complex nonlinear genetic systems certainly exist and are realized in every organism. However, quantitative differences between individuals within a species may be largely due to independent linear effects of specific genetic variants. As noted, linear effects are the most readily evolvable in response to selection, whereas nonlinear gadgets are more likely to be fragile to small changes. (Evolutionary adaptations requiring significant changes to nonlinear gadgets are improbable and therefore require exponentially more time than simple adjustment of frequencies of alleles of linear effect.) One might say that, to first approximation, Biology = linear combinations of nonlinear gadgets, and most of the variation between individuals is in the (linear) way gadgets are combined, rather than in the realization of different gadgets in different individuals.

Linear models work well in practice, allowing, for example, SNP-based prediction of quantitative traits (milk yield, fat and protein content, productive life, etc.) in dairy cattle. …

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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